Coalition of Groups Asks President Obama To Halt Move to Allow Weapons in National Parks
President Obama stated his support for the 2nd Amendment during the presidential campaign. But how does he stand on allowing national park visitors to arm themselves?
We could soon find out, as a coalition of groups asked the president on Wednesday to stop a Senate effort to open national parks to a variety of weapons, from pistols to semi-automatic rifles.
Groups signing a letter with that request included the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, The Humane Society of the United States, Violence Policy Center, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Legal Community Against Violence.
“…the National Park Service would be forced to allow loaded guns in parks, battlefields, historic sites and monuments after decades of requiring guns to be unloaded and stored when traveling through these special, well-visited locations,” the groups wrote to President Obama. “We ask you to help stop this amendment by signaling your support for its removal before it reaches your desk.”
In what the groups contend was an attempt to curry favor with the National Rifle Association, Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, this week sponsored an amendment to H.R. 627, the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights Act of 2009. As passed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, the Coburn amendment overturns the existing Reagan-era regulation, which supported the authority of the National Park Service to permit unloaded and safely stowed guns in national parks.
Instead, the amendment, which is more radical than the regulation proposed by the Bush Administration last year, imposes state law, permitting openly-carried rifles, shotguns, and semi-automatic weapons in national parks if the firearm is in compliance with state law.
“Assault rifles have no place at campfire talks and ranger walks in our national parks,” said NPCA associate director and former park ranger Bryan Faehner. “This rider is a vote against the safety of American families in our national parks. The U.S. Senate disregarded the concerns of national park rangers and former Park Service directors who want American families and wildlife to remain safe in our national parks. We hope that President Obama won’t do the same.”
Over at the Brady Campaign, President Paul Helmke said the Coburn amendment "would result in more guns in our national parks and put more hikers, campers, and families at risk. It is a reckless measure that should be rejected—whether the gun lobby tries to push it on to credit card reform legislation or anything else.”
John Waterman, president of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police, said the measure, if signed into law, "would create confusion for visitors who may not know what law would apply to the national park they are visiting, and would further complicate the job of America’s understaffed national park ranger corps. This is astoundingly misguided and presents a clear threat to not only visitor and ranger safety, but to wildlife.”
This issue stands to be the most contentious in recent national park history. While the NRA has lobbied Congress to change the regulations, park advocacy groups have turned to past Park Service directors and sought alliances with anti-gun groups to push back.
In a letter sent to former Interior Secretary Kempthorne on April 3, 2008, seven former Park Service directors opposed changing the existing Reagan-era regulation, stating, “There is no evidence that any potential problems that one can imagine arising from the existing regulations might overwhelm the good they are known to do.”
And according to NPCA officials, the American public also registered opposition to changing the existing regulation: of the 140,000 people who voiced their positions on this issue during the comment period, 73 percent opposed having loaded, concealed weapons in the parks.
“From their beginnings, national parks were intended to be special places where we can get away from the routines, pressures, and risks we face in our everyday lives. We believe that Americans want to keep national parks that way—and not like the mean streets of some U.S. cities. Allowing firearms in national parks, in accordance with state law, significantly diminishes their national stature, and increases the risk not only to visitors and employees, but to the very natural and historic resources Americans expect to be protected,” said Bill Wade, chair of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
While the Bush administration changed the gun regulations in December, making it allowable for concealed weapons permit holders to arm themselves in the parks if the surrounding state's laws permitted concealed carry, a federal judge earlier this year blocked that rule-change.
In her ruling in March, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly scolded those who crafted the rule change for abdicating "their congressionally-mandated obligation to evaluate all reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts..."
The Obama Administration reported to the court on April 17, 2009, that it would not appeal the ruling, and would conduct the appropriate environmental review as to the potential effects of the rule and proposed alternatives.
Scot McElveen, a retired chief park ranger and president of the Association of National Park Rangers, which has a membership of 1,200 consisting of both current and former Park Service employees, expressed apprehension about the ability of the Park Service to provide the best available protection to park resources under the Coburn amendment, should it become law.
“Park wildlife, including some rare or endangered species, will face increased threats by visitors with firearms who engage in impulse or opportunistic shooting,” said Mr. McElveen.
“One of our members reported to me that in Yellowstone National Park, rangers found an 11-year-old kid on the side of the road illegally shooting at squirrels with his dad. When confronted, his dad said, 'I always carry a loaded pistol, and these are just squirrels.' If he had not been carrying a readily-accessible, loaded firearm, I don’t think this incident would have happened,” he added.
“The presence of a loaded weapon is one of the only clues available for rangers to discover and prosecute those who illegally kill wildlife,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Allowing loaded weapons in national parks will put wildlife—and possibly park visitors—in the crosshairs, as well as create even more law enforcement challenges for already overtaxed park rangers.”
The Senate version of the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights Act of 2009 is expected be conferenced with the House version of the bill, which does not contain language about loaded guns in national parks, and then sent to the president for his review before Memorial Day.